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Are musicians in Belarus being locked up because songs are instrumental for change?

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By Euronews
Pavel Arakelian, a well-known Belarusian jazz, blues, and rock musician, was arrested on November 7.
Pavel Arakelian, a well-known Belarusian jazz, blues, and rock musician, was arrested on November 7.   -   Copyright  Courtesy of Pavel Arakelian
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Several well-known Belarusian musicians have been arrested in recent weeks as the government tries to shut down protests in neighbourhoods where musicians play a crucial role in uniting people through song.

These gatherings can be very intimate, with home-cooked food and drinks. Bands set up equipment and play music both for children and for adults - with a mix of old and new songs. Some lay flowers to remember the dead. Others provide activities for children. Some just walk together in protest around their neighbourhood with red and white flags and banners emblazoned with different slogans.

Music, songs and storytelling are cohesive for societies and communities, and this is perhaps why events like these have caught the attention of the security authorities. Euronews caught up with two of the musicians helping make this happen.

Pavel's gig

"Someone messages me on Facebook or Instagram: "Pavel, could you perform at the gathering of our neighbourhood?", Pavel Arakelian, a well-known Belarusian jazz, blues, and rock musician tells Euronews.

Festive lights, beautifully dressed people, and a table abundant in various sweet things
Musician Pavel Arakelian on the splendour of neighbourhood protest concerts

"Then we choose the date and time. On the scheduled day I arrive at the site, make a call for someone to meet me, but often it is not even needed, since you can clearly see where the party is: festive lights, beautifully dressed people and a table abundant in various sweet things, pastries and tea.

"It takes me about 10 minutes to set up the equipment and adjust the sound and then we start the concert. There are always a lot of kids in the crowd, therefore I perform quite a number of children's songs on a regular basis. The thing is that adults love and remember these songs from their childhood, and their kids are also eagerly singing along.

"Following this, I usually suggest that all together we sing the traditional Belarusian folk song 'Kupalinka'. I announce it as an unofficial song contest, like which yard can nail it better. So, people turn on the torch on their phones and sing 'Kupalinka' to the jazz adaptation that I wrote. Everyone is having so much fun, including myself. And then all together we sing 'Three Turtles' - a song by legendary Belarusian rock musician Ljavon Volski.

"In the end, I usually play one famous song from a Soviet time cartoon. The title of the song would sound in English something like 'The Ray Of The Golden Sun'. One line of the lyric goes as follows, 'The night will eventually pass and the clear morning will come' - it is the song women were singing in prisons at nights in the Okrestino detention facility to support Belarusian men while they were brutally beaten and tortured in the jail courtyard.

"When the event comes to an end, people start shouting, 'Thank you! Thank you!' and approach me to have a little chat, take a photo or an autograph, they present me with some cute gifts and candies. If there are no representatives of secret police or special forces at the concert, I ask someone to take me either to another performance site or home. But if the secret police are present, some of the locals invite me to their apartment for tea and we wait for them to leave."

Arakelian was arrested after stopping at a red light on his way home on November 7 and was sentenced to 15 days in prison.

“We live in a police state where people in black masks can just come up and arrest you, kill you or do whatever they like,” the 35-year-old told Euronews after his release.

Another of the songs coveted by the opposition movement is Changes by Soviet rocker Viktor Tsoi.

Our hearts demand changes
Our eyes demand changes
In our laughter, in our tears,
And in the pulsing of our veins
We are waiting for change
Changes by Viktor Tsoi

Arakelian was playing this song on the piano the night he was arrested.

“The concerts are a way to give hope to people, but Lukashenko is afraid and wants to stop this.”

Mass protests broke out in Belarus after a disputed presidential election on August 9 when President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, claimed to have received 80 per cent of the vote.

The opposition, led by candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called the result a fraud and since then, opposition supporters have held the largest anti-government demonstrations that the country has ever seen, with up to 200,000 people attending rallies in the capital city Minsk.

But the government cracked down violently on the protests, and the opposition claims that more than 30,000 have been arrested since the election.

There have been several credible reports that prisoners have been tortured, according to Human Rights Watch.

This has prompted protesters to host protests through music concerts in neighbourhoods instead of meeting up in city centres.

“Protests are getting smaller, which is quite logical. People are tired, disappointed with the lack of results and are partially suppressed by repressions and violence,” said Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Centre of Eastern Studies, a think-tank based in Poland.

“Artists always were sceptical about the regime, and now is an occasion to hit them and suppress their activity,” he added about the government’s recent arrests of musicians.

'They can't stop people from singing'

Belarusian blues singer Aleksandr Pomidorov, meanwhile, spent eight days in jail after his arrest on September 19 at a neighbourhood concert.

He told Euronews that 50 to 60 masked police officers surrounded the concert and arrested him and other protestors attending the demonstration.

“It is obvious that the police have changed their tactics and now try to shut down these concerts in the neighbourhoods, arresting musicians,” says Pomidorov, 48, who said that 15 musicians were arrested in a single day just a couple of weeks ago.

”Therefore, we will also need to change our tactics now. The government might try to stop us, but they can’t stop people from singing. People now sing songs everywhere, old songs and new songs, and it will be tough to break. People even sing in jail,” he says.

Euronews
Belarusian blues singer Aleksandr Pomidorov spent eight days in jail after being arrested on September 19.Euronews

Horrible conditions inside prisons

Arakelian told Euronews that he was threatened by police with violence after his arrest and detailed horrific prison conditions. He says there is limited access to food and water; the prisons are overcrowded; the cells are cold, but they do not get enough blankets to keep warm. Medical assistance is hard to come by, he further asserts.

Arakelian also claimed that many prisoners get COVID-19 in prison but are provided no medical treatment. He recalled that a prison guard told him: “If I treat you like people, it is only my personal initiative."

Lights are allegedly kept on in the cells to prevent prisoners from getting any sleep.

“I can’t just stop and go back to my normal life,” said Arakelian, who was held in several prisons, including the notorious Okrestina Prison in Minsk, during his 15-day detention.

“How can I stop and do nothing when the people in my nation are treated like slaves? When a lot have been killed, and others brutally beaten. It is not possible to stop now.”

“I am afraid about what the police might do to my mother to punish me, but what can I do?” he said, “We are all victims, even if I do nothing.”

November's OSCE report on post-election rights documents ill-treatment and poor detainment conditions.

"Several local and international NGOs, among them the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) based on data by Human Rights Center “Viasna” and other NGOs denounced the practice of arbitrary arrests and torture of peaceful protesters to the international community. They collected some 500 cases of torture or ill-treatment, both physical and psychological, which are well-documented with testimonies, photographs and videos."

Demonstrations might grow again

Klysinski at the Centre for Eastern Studies said that the number of protestors in Belarus has decreased since the hundreds of thousands who rallied in August and September.

Pomidorov said that people have changed tactics, trying to be more intelligent in how they protest.

“We have people who are disappointed with the lack of progress. We have tired people, and some are sick or afraid, but we are still ready,” says Pomidorov.

“We are just changing our tactics again to adapt to the changed tactics of our enemies.”

According to Klysinski, it is also too early to say whether the protest movement is waning. The declining number of protesters in the streets could be partly due to the weather getting worse, he said.

“Of course, Lukashenko may think that now he is winning, but it's an illusion, people are still highly discontented, and they are not going to respect Lukashenko. His position is unstable, and next year a new wave of protests could come back,” said Klysinski.

“On the other hand, Belarusians are not ready for revolution. This stalemate between regime and citizens will continue to be a deep political and social crisis.”

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